Should openly gay and lesbian people be ordained as Anglican priests?
A timetable for deciding that question has now been declared.
In the face of developments at home and abroad, the Anglican Church has decided to set up a commission to summarise all aspects of the issue – and it expects that commission to complete its work and report a way forward to the 2014 General Synod/te Hinota Whanui.
At its meeting in Fiji last week the General Synod Standing Committee – the high-powered body that acts for General Synod between its biennial gatherings – considered a proposal from Bishop Philip Richardson to set up such a commission at the 2012 General Synod.
Standing Committee has said the commission should in fact start its work nine months earlier, in November this year.
A small working group has been set up to propose the names for such a commission by the end of next month.
Each episcopal unit will then be invited to comment on the names proposed – with the hope that the November meeting of Standing Committee will appoint a commission ready to go.
That commission will be asked “to report progress” to next July’s General Synod gathering in Fiji “but in any event to complete its work” and report to the 2014 General Synod.
Terms of reference
Spelling out the commission's terms of reference, Standing Committee says members do not have to be specialists – but rather “eminent people with ability, credibility, and a commitment to work in prayerful collegiality…” who can objectively wrap up all the work done for the members of the General Synod.
The commission is charged with presenting “a summary of the biblical and theological work done by our church on the issues surrounding Christian ethics, human sexuality and the blessing and ordination of people in same sex relationships, including missiological, doctrinal, canonical, cultural and pastoral issues…”
That’s not all.
Standing Committee is also asking that commission for recommendations to General Synod on “the principles of Anglican ecclesiology” and “in the light of our diversity, the ecclesial possibilities for ways forward for our three tikanga church…” (emphasis added).
While Standing Committee is not looking for a commission of specialists, it does want the commission members to be able to tap into the work of expert groups on specific questions, and it suggests who those expert groups will be.
Standing Committee's resolution proposes “that various bodies of this church… be available to offer the commission advice on specific matters of questions, including the Doctrinal Commission, the Judicial Committee, the Liturgical Commission, as well as the bench of bishops.
“The commission will be free to take such advice and any other advice that it deems appropriate and to receive submissions.”
Legal opinion sought
The original proposer of the commission, Bishop Philip Richardson, earlier triggered widespread discussion when he issued a public statement challenging a petition that alleged bishops “discriminated” against gay and lesbian people who felt called to the priesthood.
The latest developments also follow advice from Judge Chris Harding, the chancellor of the Diocese of Waikato and Taranaki, in February this year.
Standing Committee had requested Judge Harding's legal opinion after the Auckland, Waiapu and Dunedin diocesan synods last year passed resolutions seeking clarification on the status of an Anglican Communion moratorium on the ordination of people in same-sex relationships.
Those diocesan synods also sought clarification as to whether each diocesan bishop has “ultimate responsibility” for deciding who gets ordained.
Judge Harding said there was, in fact, no formal legal moratorium. Rather, there was a “request and advice from the (Anglican Communion's) instruments of unity…which bishops are expected to take seriously in their decision-making.”
However, bishops “do not have infinite freedom as to who to ordain,” Judge Harding added.
The canons require people seeking ordination to be chaste – and as the canons now stand, chastity can only be understood as “either refraining from sexual relations with others, or having a sexual relationship only within the confines of marriage.”
Judge Harding continued: “Ordination of persons in same-sex relationships was never contemplated by our present canons. That is because the canons were not ever written to either provide or not provide for such a thing – it simply was not something which could or did historically arise.
“For these reasons, as present, bishops seeking to ordain those in same-sex relationships proceed at their peril (emphasis added), and could face formal challenge either by those of a traditional and more conservative view within the Church or by those concerned with the integrity of Church process, or both.”
The bishops sought a subsequent opinion from Judge Harding, and on March 7 he spelled out the consequences if, in the face of his previous advice, a bishop chose to ‘go it alone’ and ordain a gay candidate to the diaconate or priesthood.
Such an ordination might now be appealed to a Title D tribunal, which would then pass judgement – and that, he wrote, would be “far from an ideal process for deciding an issue such as this.”
Such a judicial process wouldn’t have to involve all three houses; it would effectively mean the church was allowing three people “to determine a major issue” – and whatever they decided “would lack consensus.”
Judge Harding went on to say that such a judicial process would also have “potential to cause significant problems to those involved.”
Those consequences might include:
1. Putting the life of the would-be ordinand on hold for months;
2. Rendering the Bishop in question “powerless leading to diminution in authority, not only personally but for the office.”
3. And if the ordination was “subsequently determined to be improper, the person ordained would be left in an invidious position, as would the Bishop.”
4. All this, wrote Judge Harding could lead to the church being “held up as being in considerable disarray…”
“For all of the above reasons,” wrote Judge Harding, “it is highly desirable that the Church moves forward in its conventional constitutional fashion on this issue.
“Decisions at General Synod, passed if necessary by votes by house, and by tikanga, leading to canonical change if required should be the way of advancing.”